The Eterna Files

Paperback Spotlight: The Eterna Files

The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee HieberOnce a month, we’re spotlighting a Tor/Forge book that will soon become available in paperback. Today, we’re featuring The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber, coming out in paperback February 2, 2016.

In The Eterna Files, Queen Victoria appoints Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police to Special Branch Division Omega. Omega is to secretly investigate paranormal and supernatural events and persons.

His first mission: find the Eterna Compound, which grants immortality. Catastrophe destroyed the hidden laboratory in New York City where Eterna was developed, but the Queen is convinced someone escaped—and has a sample of Eterna.

Clara Templeton, an American, is also searching for the Eterna. Haunted by the ghost of her beloved, she is determined that the Eterna Compound—and the immortality it will convey—will be controlled by the United States, not Great Britain. Please enjoy this excerpt of The Eterna Files.

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1882

Harold Spire had been pacing until first light, crawling out of his skin to close his God-forsaken case. The moment the tentative sun poked over the chimney tops of Lambeth—though it did not successfully permeate London’s sooty haze—he raced out the door to meet his appointed contact.

Conveniently, there was a fine black hansom just outside his door. Spire shouted his destination at the driver as he threw open the door and launched himself into the carriage. He was startled to find that the cab already had an occupant: a short, balding man, immaculately but distinctly dressed; as one might expect of a royal footman.

“Hello, Mr. Spire,” the man said calmly.

Spire’s stomach dropped; his right hand hovered over his left wrist, where he kept a small, sharp knife in a simple cuff. Surely this was one of Tourney’s henchmen; the villain was well connected and would do anything to save his desperate hide.

“Do not be alarmed, sir,” the stranger said. “We are en route to Buckingham Palace on orders of Her Majesty Queen Victoria.”

“Is there a problem?” Spire asked, maintaining a calm tone, relaxing his hand but offering up a silent prayer to whatever God was decent and good that the queen would not have interceded on the wretch’s behalf.…

“No, sir. You are being considered for an appointment. I can say nothing more.”

“An … appointment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m afraid I cannot attend to this great honor at present, sir.”

The man arched a preened brow. “Beg your pardon?”

“With all due respect,” Spire continued, not bothering to hide the earnest desperation he felt, “I am a policeman at a critical juncture, awaiting receipt of vital material without which a vicious criminal might walk free—”

“And what shall I tell Her Majesty? That you’re too busy for her?”

Spire set his jaw, looking anxiously out the window, seeing that they were heading in the opposite direction from where he needed to be at precisely seven. “Please tell Her Majesty that I’m about to stop a ring of child murderers and resurrectionists. Burkes and Hares. Body snatchers—”

“That will have to wait. Mere police work does not come before Her Majesty.”

“I think highly enough of Her Majesty to think she’d deem this important.”

“I am under orders to take you to the palace regardless of prevarication—”

“I wouldn’t dare lie about a thing like this!”

“Once Her Majesty has determined your suitability, you’ll be returned to your duties.”

“You’ll have to give the empress my sincere regrets. She may be able to live with one more child dead in her realm but I, sir, cannot.”

With that, Spire opened the door of the moving carriage and cast himself onto flagstones slick with the foul mixture of the London streets. His heel turned slightly under him and he came down painfully; his elbow jarred against stone and his forearm cut against the brace that held his knife sheath. He jumped to his feet and ran—with a slight limp—veering onto a bridge across the busy, teeming, brown Thames and onward to a life-or-death rendezvous.

He’d likely be arrested for his evasion, but his conscience was utterly clear.

Spire’s right hand hovered over his left forearm as he entered the damp brick alley, which was lit sporadically by gas jets whose light was dim behind blackened lantern glass. Even though the world was brightening with the gray of morning, sunlight didn’t penetrate into these drear, winding halls of sooty brick, London having its labyrinthine qualities. He made his tread soundless on the cobblestones, his eyes aware of every shadow and shape, his ears alert, his nostrils flared.

While he doubted his informant was dangerous—it was all bookkeeping, really, he imagined the source was a bank clerk or the like—what the ledgers revealed was something else entirely. The proof itself was dangerous and many men would kill with far less provocation. If “Gazelle” proved trustworthy, Spire would recruit the man for his department.

He palmed the key Gazelle had left in the drop location at Cleopatra’s Needle. If all had gone according to plan, Gazelle would have left enough evidence at this bookstore to prove without a shadow of a doubt that Francis Tourney was bankrupting charitable societies in a speculation racket that would make any betting man blush. That he was also involved in a child-trafficking ring of both living and dead young bodies was harder to prove, but far more damning.

The key opened the rear alley door of the bookshop. A small lantern was lit somewhere within, casting a wan yellow light over stacks of spines. Spire knocked on the wooden door frame: three taps, a pause, and two more.

A quiet rap in response, from somewhere within the maze of books, confirmed that his informant was waiting. Spire edged his way through boxes and stacks—one stray limb could cause the whole precarious haphazard system to tumble—toward the source of the light.

He turned a corner of books and stopped dead in his tracks. There sat a woman who had gotten him into a good bit of trouble—the prime minister’s best-kept secret, his bookkeeper, one Miss Rose Everhart. Poised as ever, seated at a long wooden table; the lit lantern cast her scowl of concentration into sharp relief as layered bell sleeves spilled over a stack of thin spines. One ledger lay, open, under her hand; she ran ungloved fingertips over the pages.

She wasn’t stunning, but unique; her full mouth, set now in a frown, gave her a gravitas offset by the few loose brown curls around her cheeks, an almost whimsical contrast to her fastidious expression. When she looked up at Spire, the intensity and razor-sharp focus of her large blue eyes made her intriguing, magnetic.

“You’re surprised to see a woman,” she said. It was not a question.

“Yes.” Spire spoke very carefully. “Especially one I recognize.” At this, she smiled, a prim, self-satisfied smile. “You made quite an impression, Miss Everhart. A cloaked female figure glimpsed wandering the halls of Parliament, only to disappear into a wall? I didn’t buy the story that you were a specter.”

“The too-curious Westminster policeman. So we meet again,” she said with an edge. “The eager dog sniffing out a fox. My employers, who were granting me the easiest access to my job while hoping to avoid any national outcry, were not fond of you. And I confess, nor was I. It was bad enough to have to sneak about, then to be thought suspect for it when I am a patriot? Horrible.”

“Yes, I was quite chastised about that by your superior, Lord Black,” Spire muttered, “so you needn’t pile on.” He wondered with sudden fear if that’s why the queen wished to see him: more scolding. Spire’s purview was Westminster and its immediate environs. When he’d stumbled upon Miss Everhart, he’d merely been doing his job. Tourney’s speculation ring involved members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, so it was perhaps not surprising that Spire had thought that the prime minister’s bookkeeper had access others did not.

At the mention of Lord Black, Miss Everhart smiled and warmed. She stood suddenly, as if on ceremony, gesturing for Spire to sit at the bench opposite. While she was primly buttoned in dour blues and grays, her skirts and bodice were tailored in unique lines and accented with the occasional bauble that made Spire think a subtle bohemian lived somewhere deep beneath her proper corset laces.

“We have enough on the racketeering for a compelling case,” she said, handing several ledgers across the table.

“Good,” he said, nodding.

“But it’s this that will deliver the decisive blow,” she murmured, and shuddered. She passed him a narrow, thin black book that she didn’t seem eager to touch. The cover said, “Registry.”

“What’s this? Did you collect this from the banks?”

“No. From Tourney’s study.” At Spire’s raised eyebrow, Miss Everhart clarified, “After I showed him the numbers, Lord Black arranged for Sir Tourney to attend some sort of speculators’ gala. Black stamped a warrant and found this.”

“Himself?” Spire asked, incredulous.

“Lord Black had been feted at the Tourney estate, so sending him in was the most efficient. He knew to look for anything out of the ordinary. And this is hardly ordinary.”

Shocked by a lord’s unorthodox method but impressed by the man’s initiative, Spire opened the book. Small, dark marks, round smudges, marched down the pages in boxes made up of thin graphite lines. A few letters—initials, Spire guessed—were penciled above each dot.

On one side of the page, the dots were dark red. On the other side, the small marks were black. At the top of each page was a single large letter: “L” above the red marks and “D” above the black.

Horror dawned, slow and sick, as Spire stared at the lines of dots and initials. Dots the size of a child’s fingertip.

“Living.” Spire’s finger hovered over the “L.”

Then he moved to the “D.” “Deceased”

Oh, God. They were children’s fingerprints. Swabbed in their blood. Or, if their bodies had been stolen when dead, their fingers dipped in ink and pressed to the page.

A registry of stolen children.

Used for God knows what.

“I…” Spire stared at Miss Everhart, whose face was unreadable. “I’m sorry you had to see this.”

Her jaw tensed, pursed lips pressed thinner. “I am thirty and unmarried. I doubt I’ll ever have children, so I do whatever I can. I owe it to those poor children not to flinch.”

Spire nodded. He hadn’t thought to place any women assets in his police force. But women could keep secrets, tell lies, deceive, and connive with an aptitude that frightened him. Women made bloody good spies. He knew that well enough.

Spire rose, sliding the ledger, breakdown, and “registry” into his briefcase. “Thank you, Miss Everhart. Please give Lord Black my regards, I was unaware he was involved. I’m not wasting any time on the arrest.”

“I didn’t imagine you would.” Everhart rose and wove expertly through the labyrinth of books. As she disappeared, she called back to him. “Go on. I’ll alert your squadron. I doubt you should go there alone.”

He stared after her a moment, resentful of initiative taken without his orders … but it would save him valuable time.

Spire and his squad descended upon the decadent Tourney estate; a hideous, sprawling mansion faced in ostentatious pink marble, hoarding a generous swath of land in North London.

His best men at his side, Stuart Grange and Gregory Phyfe, Spire stormed Tourney’s front door, blowing past a startled footman.

The despicable creature was having breakfast in a fine parlor. The son of a Marquis, descended of a withering line, seemed quite shocked to see the police; his surprised expression validated Spire’s existence.

Spire was tempted to strike the man across the jaw on principle but became distracted by the thin maid, in a tattered black dress and a besmeared white linen apron, who cowered in the corner of the parlor. Entirely ignored by the rest of the force, she was shaking, unable to look anyone in the eye. Her condition was a stark contrast to her fine surroundings, which valued possessions higher than humanity.…

Shaking his head, Spire instructed his colleagues to secure Tourney in the wagon.

“I’ve all kinds of connections,” the bloated, balding man cried as he was dragged away. “Would you like me to list the names of the powerful who will help me?”

“I think you’re in too deep for anyone but the devil to come to your aid, Mr. Tourney,” Spire called as the door was shut between them. Silence fell and he turned to the woman in the corner.

At his approach, the gaunt, frail maid began murmuring through cracked lips, “Please, please, please.” She lifted a bony arm and the cuff of her uniform slid back, revealing a grisly series of scars on her arm. Burns. Signs of binding and torture.

“Please what, Miss?” Spire asked gently, not touching her.

“S—secret door … Get them … out.…” She pointed at the opposite wall.

A chill went down Spire’s spine. He studied the wall for a long time before noticing the line in the carved wooden paneling. Crossing the room, he ran his hand along the molding, pressing until something gave. The hidden door swung open and a horrific stench met his nostrils.

The maid loosed a wretched noise and sunk to her knees, rocking back and forth. Spire raised his voice, calling to his partner and friend, a stalwart man who played all things carefully and whom Spire trusted implicitly, “Grange, I think there may be a … situation down here.”

Without waiting for a reply, Spire was through the door and descending a brick stairwell, fumbling in his pocket for a box of matches. A lantern hung at the base of the stair; he lit the wick and set it back upon the crook. The flame, magnified by mirrors, cast a wan light over the small, windowless brick room.

It was everything Spire could do to keep from screaming in horror.

Six small tables, three on each side of the room. Each bore the body of a child clothed in a bloodstained tunic. Spire could not determine their genders due to their unkempt hair, pallor, and emaciated bodies. Strange wires seemed to be attached to the children.

Nothing in his investigation, even that dread register, had prepared him for this: these poor, innocent souls, helpless victims of a powerful man who was viciously mad.

He raised his gaze from the children to an even greater horror, if a worse nightmare could be imagined. An auburn-haired woman in a thin chemise and petticoat was lashed to a crosslike apparatus, arms stretched out and sleeves torn away. Streams of dried blood from numerous puncture wounds stained her clothes, the cross, and the walls and floor. Below each of her lashed arms sat large bronze chalices, there was a basin at her feet. Spire knew in a glance that these were to collect the woman’s blood. What horrific sacrifice was this?

Spire turned his head to the side and retched. His mind scrambled to block out the image of who that woman reminded him of, the reason he’d become a police officer. The trauma of his childhood sprang back to haunt him at the sight of that ghastly visage in a blow to the mind, heart, and stomach. How could the world be endured if such a thing as this had come to pass? He’d asked the same question when the victim had been his mother. Nothing answered him, then or now, but sorrow.

“I never believed much in the devil,” came a soft, familiar voice near his ear, “or hell, but if I did, it would be this.” Spire spun to see a cloaked figure at his side, the solitary lantern casting a shallow beam of light upon the face of Rose Everhart.

“Miss Everhart, you should not be here. I don’t know how you got past my men,” Spire murmured, thinking it an additional horror that she should see this. “This is hardly the place—”

“For a lady? Even for the lady who handed you the critical evidence needed to arrest Tourney? Do I not wish to see him marched to the gallows as much as you do?” she replied vehemently. “Don’t I have a right to see my work completed? Don’t try my patience with references to ‘women’s delicate sensibilities.’ I’ve seen more death and tragedy than I care to relate. But, admittedly … never like this. Never like this.” She raised a handkerchief to her nose.

Spire suddenly wondered whether she had heard or seen him retch. It would be embarrassing if so.

“What are those wires,” she asked. “What are they for? Is this some sort of terrible experiment or workshop? Ritualistic, yes, but…”

Spire stepped forward, preparing however reluctantly to examine the bodies, when something lurched out of the darkness behind him with a clatter of chains and an inhuman growl. It grabbed him around the neck, grunted as it tightened its grip, and dragged him backward.

“Grange!” Rose shouted as Spire gasped for air and struggled to reach his knife. “If you’re a victim, we don’t want to hurt you,” she called in a softer tone, lifting her lantern and directing its light toward the scuffle. “Let the officer go, he’s with the police, here to help—”

Officer Grange tore down the stairs, arriving in the hellhole just as Spire managed to grasp his weapon and cut at the arm holding him. There was a wretched sound of pain from his captor and Spire felt a warm liquid trickle over his hand. Released, he staggered away and fell to his knees. Grange fired, the report of the gunshot exploding loudly in the low stone space. Spire’s assailant recoiled with a shriek. Stumbling back against the wall, it shuddered before collapsing.

Grange stood at the base of the stair with his gun raised. Rose stepped forward so the light from her lantern reached the back wall. Still gasping for air, Spire turned to view his attacker: a gaunt, muscular man with chunks of dark hair sprouting in uneven patches upon a scratched pate. The man’s skin was carved with strange markings, his eyes black and oddly reflective. Blood pumped thick and dark from the bullet wound in his shoulder, looking old and half-congealed though the injury was fresh. One arm was shackled to the wall. A guard, then, but not one to be trusted freely.

With a strange gurgling noise, a convulsion, and a wave of foul stench, the creature’s mouth sagged open and the thing expired. It then seemed as though an obscuring shadow rose from the body, then spread across the room as if it were a dark, heavy storm cloud, precipitous with dread terror.

Turning to look after the miasma as it passed, Grange, Spire, and Rose took in a startled breath at the same time. Grange cursed.

The mouths of the dead children, previously shut, were suddenly open.

As if screaming.

Silent, terrible moments passed before Spire, trying not to breathe the fetid air, stepped toward the tables, peering closer at the small, lifeless bodies. “From what I know of the telegraph and those new electric wires,” he stated, clearing his raw throat, “it seems similar. Something to convey a … transmission or charge.”

“But where do the wires lead?” Grange asked, looking at the ceiling, where the wires formed a latticework grid on the low timber-beamed ceiling. Many hung loose in gossamer metallic strands. “It seems they don’t continue on to the upper floors.”

“Go and see,” Spire commanded. Grange nodded and trotted back up the stairs.

Rose was writing upon a small pad of paper. This commonsense act—usually the first thing Spire himself did upon entering a crime scene—recalled him to himself. For an instant he was flushed with shame that this unprecedented discovery had caused him to falter in his work. He forced himself back under control; he would not allow the dead woman across the room—and what she represented—to derail him.

Though the room was cool, perspiration coated Spire and he could smell his own tension. He took out his notepad, replaced the lantern on the hook at the base of the stairs where he’d found it, and set to work. Each child’s wrists had puncture marks. Each arm bore odd carvings. He’d have to get one of the department sketch artists to accurately reproduce the markings. He wished a daguerreotype was possible, not that he wanted to subject more people to these horrors but only for the purpose of detail.

They held the man responsible, but Spire knew Tourney was not operating alone. The sheer gruesome spectacle of this would be enough, the policeman hoped, to indict any of the influential people Tourney worked with in this ghastly enterprise.

Spire turned his attention toward the woman at the back. His head swam. His mind was filled with the sounds and sights of his childhood trauma; the images superimposed over the present moment like a screen lowered before his eyes. He had to steady himself on one of the tables, hand fumbling over a small, cold foot.

A sloppily painted symbol on the woman’s tunic appeared to be a crest: red and gold with dragons. He couldn’t look at her face. He was already haunted enough by the vision of a beautiful, auburn-haired woman being bled before his eyes.

He felt more than saw the movement as Rose folded her cloak back over her head and disappeared upstairs.

Hearing voices calling his name, Spire mounted the stairs and stumbled into the light; his fellows took one look at his face and blanched.

“What’s down there?” a young patrolman asked.

“Hell,” Spire replied. “Don’t anyone move a thing until all details have been recorded. I want more than my notes to refer to. Get Phyfe down there, I want records of everything. Every single terrible detail.”

Spire sat in the fine chair Tourney had been using and continued making notes. The poor maid had been laid out on a nearby sofa; a nervous elder officer stared down at her as if afraid that if he turned his head, she’d stop breathing.

“Is there any other staff?” Spire asked.

“None that we’ve seen,” the officer replied.

He did not know how long he sat there, recording his impressions of the horrors below, before a voice startled him out of his morbid reverie.

“Harold Spire, come with me.” He snapped his head up to behold the same well-heeled footman who had been at his doorstep that morning.

“Ah, yes…” Spire rose and numbly walked to the door. “The queen’s man. Are you here to arrest me?”

“No, sir. While I had a mind to do so, Her Majesty is gracious and commends your commitment to English citizens. But you will come with me now.”

“Ah. Well. Yes. Lead on, sir.”

During the ride Spire could think of nothing but what he had seen in that hidden cellar and what it reminded him of. He was not surprised to realize that his hands were shaking; his stomach cramped and growled, though the mere thought of food was enough to make him want to retch again.

Buckingham Palace soon loomed ahead, gradually taking up the entire view out his carriage window. The hansom drew up to a rear door and Harold Spire found himself led by the stern footman through a concealed entrance, along a gilded hall, and into a tiny white room that contained only a single item: one fine chair.

The space had no windows, only a door with a panel at eye level. The footman closed the door firmly, leaving Spire alone in the cupboard of a room. “Would someone mind giving me even a partial clue as to what’s going on?” Spire called, glad he had restrained from cursing when answer came, as the voice was a familiar one.

“Hello, Mr. Spire,” was the reply from the other side of the wall.

Lord Black.

Spire wanted to spill all the information about the case, as Black had been critical to its culmination, but would hardly do so across a wall.

“Give me a moment, Mr. Spire, if you please.” Spire then heard two voices beyond the threshold, talking about him. Neither man bothered to lower his voice; obviously they did not care if they were overheard.

“Humble thanks, my dear Lord Denbury,” Lord Black said, bowing his blond head to the handsome young man with eerie blue eyes seated next to him in the lavish palace receiving room. The immaculately dressed gentlemen each held a snifter of the finest brandy. “Firstly, for the use of your Greenwich estate. Her Majesty is most grateful to have a place where her scientists and doctors may be safe and undisturbed as they study the mysteries of life and death.”

“Provided your aim is always the health of humankind rather than personal gain, you shall have my support, milord,” the young man said, bowing his black-haired head in return. “That house has … too many memories,” he added. “I love my New York mansion far more.”

“Ah, yes!” Lord Black leaned forward with great interest. “New York…”

“My wife is a consummate New Yorker, born and raised,” Denbury said with a smile. “I see the city as I see her: bold, opinionated, and beautiful. I love it. You should visit.”

Black nodded. “I plan to. Secondly, I must thank you for coming here on vague bidding.”

“I hate secrets,” the young man said in a cautious tone. “After all I’ve been through.”

“Of course.” Lord Black spoke with quiet gravity. “So let me be direct with you now. I need a chief of security services for those scientists and doctors and I’d like your … expertise in determining character. I understand you … see it like none other.”

Lord Denbury sighed wearily but nodded. Both men rose; Lord Black opened the eye-level panel in the door and bade the other look through.

“His name is Harold Spire,” Black said. “What do you make of him?”

The man in question, seated on the velvet chair in the white room, wore a modest black suit. Scowling, he rested his hands in his lap. His green cravat gave the impression of having been hastily tied; it was rumpled and a bit askew. There were smudges upon his suit as if he’d encountered dust or soot and there was a dark stain on his cuff. At a median British height with light brown hair, Spire’s average appearance might be gamesome, possibly even handsome, if the scowl didn’t make him somewhat of a bulldog.

“What do you see?” Black murmured to his companion.

“Well,” Lord Denbury began matter-of-factly. “He’s had a terrible day by the look of him. He bears a general white aura with hints of blue, which represents that he means well and is at heart a good man, untroubled and unbiased by exterior forces. He will do the right and moral thing. Provided that is what you want, Lord Black, you and he should not be at cross purposes.”

Lord Black smiled as he shut the observation panel. “I assure you, my friend, that I want what is moral, just, and fair.”

“I see the same light about you,” the dark-haired man replied. “But should those colors change, you’ll no longer have my friendship. I’m sorry if that seems harsh, but the trials of the last two years have inured me to niceties.

“Is that all, milord? I’ve left my dear wife anxiously awaiting her surprise: a trip to Paris. She’s impossible when she’s impatient … and she’s never patient,” he added with a smile that spoke of the throes of young love.

Black chuckled. “Indeed, you are released and I cannot thank you enough. Safe travels to you and yours.”

Denbury bowed his head and strode away, escorted by an immaculately clad footman.

Black turned to his aide. “Tell Her Majesty that Mr. Spire passed the test.”

Lord Black hadn’t told Lord Denbury that the scientists and doctors stationed at Rosecrest, the Denbury estate, had recently gone missing, along with the security chief assigned to them. If the cable he’d received from a contact in America was to be believed, the Americans weren’t having a good time of it either. He had to wonder if the incidents were related, somehow. Impossible as that seemed.

He turned as a rustle of skirts heralded the formidable presence coming his way.

“Ah, Your Majesty.” Lord Black bowed low to the diminutive sovereign. Her stern face with its round cheeks was framed in white lace while the rest of her was engulfed in black taffeta, dripping beads of Whitby jet. “Spire has been cleared.”

Spire waited, not entirely patiently, for several minutes before Lord Black opened the door and gestured for him to leave the tiny, plain room. Eager to bring the handsome, slender, fine-featured blonde up to date, Spire began, “Tourney, Lord Black—it’s done. But what I found—”

Black held up a hand. His tense smile flexed the scar that ran from above his right eyebrow down into his cheek. Spire often wondered about the origin of that scar, but never asked. “Good work, Spire. The queen awaits you. But first…”

The sour-faced footman stepped up with a black suit coat in hand. “You look as though you’ve traversed every layer of Dante’s inferno,” the man said.

“Oh, just come right out and say I look like hell,” Spire muttered, staring at Lord Black. “I saw hell. It’s worse than anything you could have imagined.”

The footman grabbed his sooty coat and slid it off his arms, then muscled on the fresh jacket though it in no way fit. Spire feared he’d split the seams with the least shift of his shoulders, which were far too broad for the fine fabric. The too-short sleeves didn’t entirely hide the patch of blood on his shirt cuff. Shuddering at the memory of where he’d acquired the stain, Spire tried to tuck it out of sight. Black nodded Spire toward the receiving room.

He was shown in wordlessly; the door closed quietly behind him.

The surreality of Harold Spire’s day was heightened by the lavish setting of Buckingham Palace, worlds away from his life and laughable when compared to the horror of his morning duties. He’d passed around the outside of the building during parades and once had visited the main foyer, but never before had he gained entrance to one of the receiving rooms. It was full of things; lacquered things, mirrored and crystalline things, tasseled and brocaded things. Strains of music wafted into the tall, bright room, perhaps from a ballroom: a string quartet playing Bach. Spire preferred dark-paneled rooms filled with books. And good whiskey. And Chopin. And a coat that fit.

“Your Highness,” Spire said, paying due deference to Her Majesty Queen Victoria, who stood facing away from him, hand upon the crest of a large armchair, turned toward a tall window with lace curtains partly drawn. Spire stepped forward, noticing that the marble-topped writing desk beside the queen was covered with maps of New York City and schematics for an ocean liner. A telegraph machine sat silent on the desktop, gleaming in the sunlight.

“Mr. Spire,” she began without turning to look at him, speaking in a grand way that left no room for interruption, “I have called you here to give you an appointment. You rose quickly through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police. I’ve been assured you are fair and just, keen to recognize patterns and aberrations that catch criminals, swift and smooth with your decisions. But perhaps too quick to spy.”

Spire felt heat rise in his face; he glanced into the golden-framed mirror on the wall next to him and saw his fair skin had colored all the way up to the roots of his light brown hair.

“I was afraid that’s what this was about. Please, your Highness, I’ve personally apologized to the prime minister and to Miss Everhart. A cloaked female utilizing secret passages within a subsection of Parliament does seem suspicious, surely—” He hoped he didn’t sound whiny.

“As you know, that was to hide the fact that the P.M. had employed a lady as his chief bookkeeper. Imagine the outcry. But this isn’t about the prime minister or his employees. You come highly recommended by Lord Black.” She turned around at last. Her eyes were shrouded by dark lenses connected by a curving filigree bridge. He must have looked quizzical, because she paused and said, “Lenses cut from a scrying glass, in hopes I’ll see the dead.”

When Spire simply nodded, the queen cocked her head. “Not him, necessarily,” she scoffed. “I know what you’re thinking.”

That the queen still dressed in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, many years deceased, and entertained all sorts of ideas of how to contact him—not to mention sleeping beside a picture of him and placing out his fresh clothes each day—had become a quiet joke in the realm.

“What am I thinking, Your Majesty?” Spire asked innocently.

“Oh, come now”—she batted her hand in irritation—“it’s as if you all think I go about dragging his coffin behind me everywhere I go.”

“I thought I saw parallel scratches on the wooden floor,” Spire said, gesturing down the hall. “That explains it.” He smiled.

The queen tried to scowl but instead coughed a laugh. She removed her glasses, piercing him with a stare. The short, plump-cheeked woman was downright disconcerting when she deployed her steely gaze. She was Empress, after all.

“What is wrong with you, Mr. Spire? You look dreadful and you need a better tailor.”

“I came direct from a crime scene, Your Majesty, my apologies. I thought your gentleman explained—”

“Ah, yes, yes, Tourney and the resurrectionist ring. Tell me, how large of an operation do you deem it?”

“Between the financial speculation and the body snatching, I imagine it may be a wide net. The ledger we found will condemn the ring, though there was a…” He trailed off, unsure how much of the dreadful scene to speak of. The Queen simply stared at him expectantly. At last he swallowed back a wave of sour saliva and continued, “A peculiar crest was discovered.… Well, it all had a ring of … ritual to it, Your Majesty.”

The queen snapped her head to the side and it was only then that Spire noticed Black had slipped into the room behind him. “Ascertain that crest,” she snarled. “If it remains from Moriel’s tenure, I want them all to hang.” Lord Black nodded reassuringly. Spire was pleased the queen was taking the matter as seriously as she should.

“Mr. Spire,” the queen said, “I am about to tell you a state secret known only to a few. The Eterna Compound was first sought in America after the assassination of President Lincoln. A bold idea, born of grief. I well understand Mrs. Lincoln’s woes. A small team of theorists made no progress in their research until two years ago. But now there is a fresh impasse. As I have full faith in my realm, I believe we can fix the Americans’ mistakes and make the compound viable.”

“May I ask what the Eterna Compound is, Your Majesty?”

“A cure for death. A drug that confers immortality. I’ve had a team compiling information and studying the idea for years.”

Spire kept his face unreadable, his skepticism hidden. “And do we? Have the cure for death?”

The queen shook her head. “Our plant within the operation has not reported as scheduled. We hope to retrieve information and material from New York; material that you, Mr. Spire, will safeguard. Other Special Branches of investigation and prosecution will counter various political threats. Your division, Omega, will counter the greatest threat of all: a nation that could make its leader immortal. We cannot allow America to gain the upper hand in immortality. I empathize with Mrs. Lincoln but have no desire to confront an utterly impervious American president.”

Lord Black stepped forward and spoke carefully. “The British operation is … paused. Our facility was recently compromised. You will safeguard fresh intelligence and a new team, in offices that are presently being prepared. You must focus on life and death in a whole new way, Mr. Spire. All other matters of mundane police work must be cast off to the fellows you leave behind at the Metropolitan Police.”

Spire reeled. This appointment was a nightmare. The queen had the wrong man. Spire didn’t believe a word of any of this. A cure for death? How could he manage an operation he couldn’t take seriously? He broached the only comfort he could cling to, the resolution of the horror he’d faced.

“But today’s findings were hardly mundane; the work not of mere Burkes and Hares but something even more insidious.…” Panic threatened to overtake him as the images rose in his mind.

Lord Black stepped close and flashed Spire a look of warning as he poured whiskey from a crystal decanter into a pair of matching snifters. “Material and information will arrive from New York,” Black said smoothly as he handed Spire a glass, “and your focus must be upon it, Mr. Spire. I will personally see to it that the Metropolitan follows every Tourney lead.” From the flash of fury in the man’s eyes, Spire knew Black meant what he said and recalled it was Black himself who had obtained the ledger Miss Everhart had given him. More than he’d ever have expected of an aristocrat in the House of Lords.

Spire fought the urge to drain the snifter as the queen delicately lifted a cup and saucer of tea. Then she stung him.

“That you have suffered grave loss and then been betrayed by love, and in such a way as to cost state secrets may be something a man might be ashamed of,” the queen began, “but I look upon it as a gift. Your cautious care, a healthy ability to second-guess, a lack of trust, this will all be very valuable. Trust no one. Not at first.”

Spire swallowed hard. The queen had most certainly read up on him. His mother’s death had been a bit of a media circus at the time, and his father had done nothing to calm the frothing “journalists.” Then, Alice. He’d been too naive to have imagined that an officer like him, assigned at that time around the Houses of Parliament and surrounding neighborhoods, would have been of interest to French agents. He’d never dreamed they’d employ a lady—and Alice Helms, now Madame Lourie, had easily taken advantage of him. He had been a fool and women were a source of woe.

“And so I look at the whole of your history and see the sort of solid man I can depend on, one who has been scarred in all the right places. One must build up scars in war. And we are engaged in a most unusual war here, Mr. Spire. I need you scarred. Sane. And unafraid.”

Spire nodded.

“As we speak, all your belongings are being transferred to rooms in Westminster; Rochester Street, lovely accommodations unregistered and unlisted, a vast improvement from your current subsistence,” the queen continued casually. “Bertram will give you the keys. You will share your address only with the most trusted members of your assigned team, and only once you have ascertained their loyalty.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Spire bristled but managed to keep his tone level. He was a private man. That persons had been in his home and uprooted his possessions made him clench his fists.

“Lord Black will see to your new offices. Tell your Metropolitan fellows nothing save that you’ve been transferred. You’ll liaise further with a contact at the British Museum.”

“With all due respect, Your Majesty,” Spire offered quietly, “I cannot in good faith abandon the Tourney case.”

“I insist that you do,” she replied stridently.

Spire swallowed hard. He would not disobey the queen. Not to her face. Instead he changed the subject.

“Your Majesty, I’m sorry, I have to ask, considering the bent of this commission … Did my father put you up to this?”

The queen arched a brow. She was not amused. “Victor Spire?” She scoffed. “Author of penny dreadfuls, Gothic novels, and sensationalist plays? Have audience with Her Majesty the Queen?”

“Ah, no, of course not. Forgive me for bringing him up,” Spire said, mustering sincerity, biting back the urge to say that he knew firsthand she had secretly attended his father’s latest show; after all, his men had seen to her protection. “But a race for immortality. It sounds like something he’d serialize in Dickens’ magazine.”

The regent stiffened. “Dare you imply, Mr. Spire, that this position is not to be taken seriously?”

“Of course not, Your Majesty, pardon me,” Spire said, bowing his head. “Unlike my father, I have retained appreciation only for the concrete, tactile, apprehendable, and solvable.”

“Apply those very principles going forward, Mr. Spire.” The queen clapped her hands once. Her serious, jowled face grew even more intense. “Tell your father his last novel was dreadful.”

“You read it, Your Majesty?”

“Every word,” she said with exaggerated disdain. “Truly dreadful stuff.”

“Agreed, Your Majesty.”

“Good-bye, Mr. Spire. Good luck and do good work.”

Spire bowed his head as the regent swept away amid the clicking of beads and the swishing of silk. The sour-faced footman showed him out a different door, first retrieving the excellent, though too small, coat and, with a curled lip, handing over Spire’s soot-stained jacket as well as a brass key with a number on the fob.

Stuffing the key to a whole new existence into the pocket of his long, black, velvet-trimmed, fitted coat, Spire couldn’t deny he was curious. He could go examine the place, test the walls, see if they’d granted him hidden compartments and revolving bookcases. Hopefully there was a wine cellar.

To leaven his darkening mood Spire lost himself as he loved to do: in the smoky, sooty, horse-befouled, hustling chaos of London proper, reveling in the onslaught of sensory input that drowned out all concerns, doubts, and anxiety. The crashing, audible waves of London always trumped the drumming of the mind; the roaring aorta churning the very heart of the world won out every time over one’s own racing pulse. He let the chaos of London in like a man might smoke an opium pipe, allowing the high to carry him about the city on a cloud of stimuli.

Spire trailed a nervous man in a brown greatcoat for two miles simply for the sake of proving he could do so unnoticed. He chose his subject after overhearing him lie to a pretty girl leaning out the window of a brougham—narrowing in on one conversation out of the melee, it was as though Spire could hear a single, subtle line of dissonance in a rollicking symphony. The young man sent the blushing, giggling girl off, saying he was going west. Instead he took off east, stuffing his hands in his pockets, a sheen of moisture over his lip.

It wasn’t that Spire assumed everyone was guilty of something, but years of honing perceptions, translating body language, reading movement and expression, ascertaining habits, casting judgments, all made him suspicious of nearly everyone at first glance. Trust no one, the queen had said. Spire had abided by that edict for years, ever since Alice … Since her, he hardly trusted himself.

Now he was being entrusted with state secrets coming from the highest channels. Ridiculous ones at that. Should he have said outright that he didn’t believe in the supernatural? Skepticism had its uses. If the queen needed him to be a believer, she should have asked him.

That the man in the brown coat went into a jewelry shop and came out with an engagement ring—Spire had leaned against the shop window on Farringdon Road to eavesdrop upon the conversation with the clerk—filled him with a certain joy. He loved to be proven wrong. It didn’t happen often enough. And if he didn’t treasure those instances when the brighter side of humanity showed its face, he’d have to throw himself in the Thames.

He doubted the sights of that basement would ever leave his thoughts, and offered something of a prayer upward, toward an entity he regarded with as much skepticism as he did anything outside his own mind and body, hoping something about his new appointment might make for the ability to seek out further answers. For what could drive creatures to do such horrific things if they were not possessed, maddened, by the intrigue of life and death?

Regardless of motive or madness, to the point of risking treason, he’d hardly abandon the case.

Copyright © 2015 by Leanna Renee Hieber

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